In part to keep this in my mind in case I ever have to preach on Romans, in part to share a song I’ve enjoyed all morning long and in part because the mess up half way through the performance is the loveliest demonstration of the point I’m going to make, here’s a video. The video is of the song “Ill With Want” by the very profound Avett Brothers and it is the finest soundtrack to Romans 7 that all the pop music I’ve ever listened to can thus far provide.
In the letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul writes:
I don’t understand what I do. I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do what I hate to do. I do what I don’t want to do.
Anyone got any competitors?
Your Correspondent, Convienence forever! Freshness never!
I prepared for final exams in a kitchen at the back of a house with no central heating. Wife-unit was then my girlfriend and she lived with two of the most wonderful friends a person could have. I basically lived there. They had a mosaic reading “2:1” on the fridge with magnets to encourage me to finish well a degree I had basically slept through. Well, I didn’t sleep that much but I read every word by CS Lewis that I could find in an effort to work out why Christianity was the way.
We listened to an album on repeat called Senor My Friend. It was by a Dublin man called Ro Hession. He sang as Mumblin’ Deaf Ro. He didn’t have the greatest voice in the world. But it contained a human tenderness. And it sang lyrics so fine and true that every single replay reminded me somewhere deep inside that there was something far more valuable than a degree being procured. Time was passing. I was spending it on friendship.
All this sentimental reminiscing is to encourage you to download Ro’s second album. It is now five years old and he has made it freely available over the intertubes. His music has been a constant delight to me and I think it will be so for you too. Many of the 7 people who read this blog live in far flung places like Australia and Canada. You people are unlikely to ever come across Ro because he is an ordinary fellow doing ordinary things with a real job and a family. He writes songs and occasionally gigs and at the rate he is going will produce two albums a decade. But the songs are so deep and so good that they don’t wear out in-between.
What’s To Be Done With El Salvador is my favourite track on that album but every song is remarkable. I could take one of the choruses as my life-slogan.
I should just love my wife, read a little, rest in the evening and learn about life the long-way round.
I hate to say it but Bruce Springsteen’s latest single, “We Take Care Of Our Own” is the most sophisticated piece of puke-inducing, syncretistic, jingoistic, narrowly nationalistic, deluded myth-propogating propaganda of the year.
The Boss should be fired.
Your Correspondent, Are not even the tax collectors doing that?
For the last few Christmases my friends and I have had a tradition whereby we each compile a CD worth of music that we discovered in the previous year as a sort of retrospective and best-of of the year. The music need not be released that year, it just has to be new to you.
The project is really cool because as the years go by, each CD we each make is like a sedimentary layer of our tastes becoming inexorably more middle-aged and less cool. Or alternatively, less self-conscious and more fun. Regardless, you see changes! And you discover the new music that your friends have been loving. My best of this year involves songs that were recorded by friends and songs from the 1930’s so this YouTube playlist is incomplete but a pretty good representation.
Your Correspondent, Hopes to see him bring ’em all back to life
Contemporary Christian music is one of those curious phenomena in our culture that is a joke in and of itself. Even people who should know better will guffaw at the prospect of someone making pop music from the stance of their faith in a God called Trinity.
Scepticism towards such music is a wise rule of thumb because it is so often awful propaganda. Lewis called the Christian compositions of his day sixth rate poetry set to seventh rate music. Rob Bell made the observation that Christian is an excellent noun but a lousy adjective and he was spot-on.
Yet at numerous times over the last decade, to little acclaim and to lots, Christians have done the most unjustifiable and uncool thing possible- sought to express their encounter with God in pop songs and succeeded in honouring their faith and writing fine music. You know some of them as the greatest albums of the last ten years: the Sufjan albums and Mumford and Sons’ Sigh No More. Two other come to mind that were largely unnoticed by popular culture. The first was Who We Are Instead by Jars Of Clay, a classic of newgrass music that was laden with turns of phrase so poetic that they could be easily missed. The second was the hymn-writer, Derek Webb’s She Must And Shall Go Free, a record of songs that effortlessly communicate profound philosophical and theological concepts.
In the last week I have been listening to an album called Love & War & The Sea Between Them by a Portland based musician called Josh Garrels. The album came to my attention because Christianity Today declared it the album of the year. Sure that isn’t a recommendation as desirable as Pitchfork’s, but it is considerably less pretentious as well.
The album is a revelation.
This is folk music that is unapologetically Christian and utterly accessible. For those in the know, the beautifully turned songs are in intimate dialogue with the Psalms and the Biblical narrative. Garrels is fluent in the modern masters of Christian art, alluding to Cash while making reference to Lewis. The theology, the core of this music is exuberant and Augustinian.
If that paragraph meant nothing to you, or worse, turned you off, know only this: these songs are at base precise articulations of human hope. They are authentically Christian but by dint of that they throw their arms wide and invite everyone in to enjoy the sound and dwell on the story. In Father Along he sings:
So much more to life than we’ve been told
It’s full of beauty that will unfold
And shine like you struck gold my wayward son
That deadweight burden weighs a ton
Go down into the river and let it run
And wash away all the things you’ve done
You don’t have to know that he is evoking a parable found in Luke 15, or that he is referencing American spirituals while paraphrasing the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew to know that there is something deep down true being spoken here. The beauty of this album unfolds.
Wife-unit says that he sounds like Bruce Springsteen, which is pretty fecking high praise. At times his voice is so beautiful you could call it Thomyorkesque. This music is prophetic, startlingly human, and possessing of an exacting and precise spirituality that demands absorption.
I’ve only had it for a week. I think it might actually be the best record of 2011. The insane news is that you can get it for free at Garrels’ Bandcamp page. After eighteen months of work, he was having a bath and praying one day and sensed that God was asking him to give it away as an expression of gratitude for the provision that he had received in the previous years. So that is what he is doing.
Go download it. Tell me what you think. I think you might like it.
Your Correspondent, The liberation will not be televised when it arrives like lightning in the skies
My year in music is defined by two events: firstly the end of R.E.M. and secondly, the discovery of TuNe-YaRdS.
I grew up falling asleep to R.E.M. music. As my brother studied for exams I picked up every chord of the first six albums by osmosis. I sang obscure B-sides to myself as I ambled to school. I was convinced that Near Wild Heaven was as pretty a thing as had ever been made by men.
In retrospect, we should have known that Collapse Into Now would be the last album since Michael Stipe is literally waving goodbye on the album cover. Plus, R.E.M. vowed they’d never appear on their own album covers.
But while Collapse Into Now is a fitting way to finish the recording career of the greatest American band, the five albums I have decided to call the BEST ALBUMS OF THE YEAR are actually as follows:
Whokill by TuNe-YaRdS
Merrill Garbus is a freaking phenomenon. I came home from a few days away teaching to find Wife-Unit glued to her laptop, watching what few videos they’ve gotten around to making on repeat. The two albums exploded into our lives and became the soundtracks to the year for us both.
We got to see them live the week after discovering them and the performance was pounding and powerful and pagan and truly spectacular.
Hot Sauce Committee by The Beastie Boys
R.E.M. closed off their career with a pretty good but not really near their best sort of album. But The Beastie Boys, perennial partners of my adolescent listening released an album that somehow defied my expectations. At first listen it was ideal summertime music. It became the music I ran to. And I still can’t quite resist listening to it every single week. An album utterly devoid of the po-faced, self-conscious, earnest shite that millionaire rappers in their 40’s who are battling with cancer might be expected to release. I love this record.
Enjoy the 29 minute music video, if you dare:
El Camino by The Black Keys
I loved their 2010 album Brothers and when I first heard their song Lonely Boy I knew that this would be worth the very short wait for their next release. The Black Keys have soul and funk and somehow channel that into a place rocking enough to replace The White Stripes-shaped hole in my heart. Yet another high momentum, utterly rocking classic.
The song I wanted to share, Little Black Submarines, isn’t up on YouTube yet so instead here’s a random cover from a girl who can sing nice:
Hanna Soundtrack by The Chemical Brothers
The Chemical Brothers always made great albums that I never quite loved. Or more precisely still, they made astonishing videos that prompted me to buy the albums that I never quite got around to loving. Their best music video ever has to be the supreme action movie of the year (though I haven’t yet seen Ghost Protocol), Hanna. All four of these albums produce a visceral response in me. They make me want to move. If I wasn’t such a white Presbyterian, you might even say they make me want to dance. Hanna’s stand-out track is The Devil’s In The Beats:
My favourite album of the year is not nearly as pumped as any of these however. It is in fact a wordy, folksy R.E.M. tribute act, which explains why I love it so much. The Decemberists’ The King Is Dead. Starring guest appearances by Gillian Welch and Peter Buck, this album actually pays homage to Stipe and co in a more blatant manner than even Oasis’ What’s The Story Morning Glory. The songs are great, the lyrics as ever are compelling and the whole effect grows on you with more listens.
There were very good albums by Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss and Iron and Wine and St. Vincent that I couldn’t quite get into. There were really fine records by Adele and Lisa Hannigan and Foster The People and Fountains of Wayne and Cake that I couldn’t make space for and Feist and PJ Harvey’s albums are both flawless as well but ultimately for me if 2011 had to be compressed down, it would have to be to these five records.
Your Correspondent, His most important muscle is the orbicularis oris muscle, because it is used to pucker the lips.
Stanley Hauerwas is a very important thinker round these parts. At Maynooth Community Church many of us are pretty convinced that the writings of this 70-something bricklayer from Texas have a direct relevance to what we’re trying to do. The moral theology of Hauerwas has tended towards spiralling back onto medical ethics again and again. Whether he is talking about people with disabilities, the care for the dying or the topic he is famous for, not using armies to kill people, he is a man who wants Christians to grapple with death.
So I only half in jest propose this uplifting number from William Shatner’s hugely under-rated album Has Been as our anthem for Hauerwas’ medical ethics.
Your Correspondent, Still intends to get out of this life alive.